TOWNSHIP 3, RANGE 10 — Spring in the north woods brings rain, black flies and mosquitoes. And every year the Maine Appalachian Trail Club crew works right through these nuisances.

In fact, the volunteers in the club savor the springtime work in Baxter State Park, perhaps none more than 87-year-old John Neff.

“It’s hard to explain the feeling of doing the trail,” Neff said of the annual pilgrimage. “You don’t want those thru-hiking the trail to be distracted. You want them to be able to enjoy it. And you want it to look wild.”

This May marked Neff’s 50th year working on the Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park. A historian and former Methodist pastor who co-authored a book about the park, Neff loves to tell the story of how Gov. Percival Baxter, who over 30 years starting in the 1930s purchased 201,000 acres around Mt. Katahdin to give to the people of Maine.

The night before the Maine club began its work this year, Neff sat comfortably at a picnic table – among the black flies – and retold the tale.

And then he shared his research on Baxter’s first ascent of Katahdin in the 1920s. And with a historian’s insight, Neff explained how many believe that first trip up Katahdin sealed Baxter’s conviction to protect the land here, when he proclaimed at the summit: “I wouldn’t do it again for a million. But I wouldn’t have missed it for a million.”

Since 1935, members of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club have volunteered to help repair 267 miles of the trail in Maine. And since 1981, the club’s volunteers have readied 11 miles of the trail that runs through Baxter State Park.

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, use along the trail has continued to increase at a rate of 10 percent a year. Today more than 3,000 people attempt to complete the Appalachian Trail hike of about 2,200 miles, the Conservancy reported.

So volunteers in the Maine club – like other Appalachian Trail clubs in the other 13 states along the trail – maintain as many as 40 campsites along the trail, build outhouses and lean-tos, and cut fallen trees and fix water bars where runoff crosses the trail.

Neff started working on the trail in 1968 after moving to Orono from Portland to be the pastor at the United Methodist Church. He found himself within two hours of the trail, and called the Conservancy to ask how he could help.

He started in the area around Katahdin Iron Works, to the east of Moosehead Lake, but soon became a trail overseer in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he served for a time as president of the Maine club.

He was assigned to care for and clear the last 5.2 miles of the trail up Mt. Katahdin for more than 20 years. He finally gave up the summit in 2004 at age 74. But Neff didn’t quit working on the trail.

When he turned 80, he made his last ascent of Katahdin and the members of the Maine trail crew who work on the trail in the park with him each spring gave him an MATC shirt signed by a dozen of them, including one who wrote: “Thank you for sharing your soul.”

Today, at 87, Neff still dreams of one last hike to the campground below the Mt. Katahdin summit.

“I keep saying I want to go to Chimney Pond again and just enjoy a few days there,” Neff mused as he hiked and clipped branches along the Appalachian Trail in Baxter two weeks ago.

Despite a pending knee replacement, he hikes with deft ability. He’s eager to teach a new trail volunteer when to widen the trail, and quick to recruit one.

Six years ago, he asked his friend from church, George Lee of Augusta, to help on the Baxter work party, and now Lee, 63, comes each May to Baxter to work on the trail.

“I’ve hiked it with my son in Massachusetts,” Lee said as he paused from cutting branches. “I always wondered how it stayed in such good shape. It’s this network of people that keeps things going. And it’s good to help, be part of the camaraderie, learn about other people’s lives.”

Needless to say, Neff is not unusual among the club volunteers in his passion for the trail.

Rod Emerick of Wiscasset has a section in the 100-mile wilderness he maintains. He drove three hours two weeks ago to help the 16 volunteers working on the trail in Baxter.

“I figured it out and last year I worked 170 hours on the trail – just for kicks,” Emerick said as he prepared to clear downed trees.

Rick Ste. Croix has worked for the club for 28 years, and has been a trail overseer since 1997 to make certain some 60 miles of trail is in good repair.

Even when Ste. Croix moved from Millinocket to Augusta 12 years ago to take a new paper mill job in Skowhegan, he kept his post overseeing the Katahdin district of the trail.

Ste. Croix has never hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, but hopes to when he retires in another 10 years. For now he enjoys making it a welcome footpath for others.

“I wouldn’t want to be paid for this,” Ste. Croix said. “There is not enough money in the world. It’s like Baxter said: ‘I wouldn’t miss this for a million.’ ”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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